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In the News: The University of Virginia President Controversy and the Changing US University

The forced resignation of University of Virginia President Terry Sullivan only two years into her tenure has felt like a major news story from the start for UVA alums like me. But what began as a local story about the university’s first female president beloved by students and faculty and forced out for opaque reasons by a board of visitors dominated by members of the state’s business community, quickly became a significant national story with multiple articles in the Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate, and countless blogs.

The inscrutability of the board’s motives has at once been the central driver of interest in the story and given rise to a few conspiracy theories. However, I’ve found the story to be easier to understand in light of insights gleaned from a recent issue of Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences (LATISS) on “Learning under Neoliberalism: Ethnographies of Governance in Higher Education (Subscription required).

The issue analyzes the impacts of and the academy’s response to the neoliberal restructuring of US and UK universities. The editors describe this change as occurring when corporate interests “penetrate academic environments, the logic and discourse of competitive ‘free’ markets [determines] budgetary and policy decisions” with the result that “universities are [casualizing] faculty and staff labor, raising students’ tuition fees, and directing more of their resources towards developing so-called ‘public–private partnerships.'” In the Virginia case, the logic of corporatization extends to the Board itself which is dominated by members selected (by governors of both parties) for their experience in business rather than the academy.

The ouster of President Sullivan was led by board members with close connections to the University’s Darden School of Business and without the consultation of interests tied to the humanities and social sciences, supporting Boone Shear and Angelina Zontine’s contention that the corporatized university is “in the business of producing particular types of knowledge, relationships and people that can benefit [globalized] private capital,” with the result that disciplines whose research isn’t easily commodified is devalorized.

The board members’, admittedly few, statements on the affair also reveal the extent to which the logic of business informs the contemporary academy. In a leaked email, a Darden foundation board member who helped orchestrate Sullivan’s dismissal explained to other Darden supporters that changes in “funding, Internet, technology advances, the new economic model” called for “strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning,” a bit of corporatespeak meaning Sullivan should have focused on a series of short-term goals rather than a devising a long-term plan for the university, which seems at odds with the traditional understanding of a university president’s role. In an op-ed defending the board’s decision, board member Paul Tudor Jones II marshaled only facts related to Virginia’s rankings and salaries. This demonstrates the extent to which “managerialism has displaced and subordinated professional and administrative logics for the coordination of universities” as John Clarke argues in his article in LATISS.

But what allows this process of university corporatization to take place? In the case of Virginia, the fact that board memberships are bestowed by governors thereby ensuring that big donors will have an advantage in the process surely plays a role. But at a deeper level, as Vincent Lyon-Callo demonstrates, these changes are abetted by the economic insecurity of middle-class families who fear that the next generation will lose the material gains of earlier ones. With youth unemployment high and growing income inequality, a university education whose aims and structures are dictated by the same interests who will be hiring and paying future workers seems attractive to parents and students alike.

As the University of Virginia case shows, the future of the American higher education could look quite different from its present. The articles in LATISS Vol. 3, Iss. 3 make a strong case that charting a course for the future will mean not just looking to the academy’s past but analyzing and understanding the logic underlying the changing governance of the university with an eye to formulating response that maintains the best of its past while meeting the needs of current and future students and faculty.